Restaurant Review – Supermarket Cuisine

It might seem strange to include supermarkets in a ‘Restaurant Review’ but not to do so would be to neglect one of the great achievements of the French Nation, up there with the discovery of Penicillin and the Suez and Panama Canals, (well, perhaps not the latter because the Americans had to finish that!).

But why is this?  I hear you ask.

It is because by careful and intricate planning French men have persuaded French women that, in the great battle of the sexes, the women have won and  they are now able to drag their men, kicking and screaming, to the supermarket. Or, in fact, not kicking and screaming at all, but rather with an ingratiating subservience. 

However, far from being a victory for Womens’ Lib., what the ladies do not seem to notice is that whist they are wheeling their malfunctioning “chariots”, around the aisles filling it with Cassoulet, Roquefort and Jammy Dodgers, their men folk are safely ensconced in the bar, contentedly drinking their wine, pastis or café calva and watching the crumpet walk by.  Unless, that is, there is football or rugby on the bar TV.   It is, of course, always a matter of priorities!

Of course, there has to be a trade off and this is that the men folk are expected to be at the till when their wives or partners arrive with their groaning chariots.  This is somewhat annoying when one is down to the last five minutes of a Six Nations Rugby Match, but that is the way the contract works.  At least watching the bulk of a
rugby match on TV is better than inanely following your wife up and down supermarket aisles for several hours, like some perverse copy of the Muslim tradition which has the women following some way behind the men!

What these bars also do is to supply cheap, good value food at lunchtime, (12 till 2,) and, if you are in a rush or have large families to feed, they really provide another, viable option.  Their popularity is proven by the fact that, come midday, they are inundated by local workers from the surrounding offices and factories.  Another, not inconsequential, result of the supermarkets hosting bar/restaurants is that they have to stay open during the lunchtime hours and this is by far the best time to do your shopping  as all, self respecting, French people are busy eating. 

As all the bar/restros are franchised their method of operation tends to vary at the discretion of the franchisee.  For example the bar/restro at  Leclerc in Saumur is a straightforward self service operation, although the vegetables and chips are supplied ad-hoc from another service area behind the main till. The one in Super-U in Doué la Fontaine is similar but gives you a ticket whilst the main meal is being prepared.  The Super-U at Vihiers, by far my favourite, operates as a straightforward restaurant with waiter service for the main course and cheese/dessert with the entrée normally being from a self service salad/charcuterie bar.

If you ask for coffee, with the exception of Vihiers, all the others give you a token or a ticket. The token means that somewhere in the vicinity there is a self service expresso machine and the ticket means that you go to the bar to obtain your coffee, after you have finished your meal. It is a great surprise to the French if you want to drink a beverage during a meal instead of afterwards. It offends their perceived notion of how things should be done!!

So there you are. You cannot expect haut cuisine and one must say that the quality is occasionally variable.  But millions of French workers cannot be wrong.

And it has to be better than a recently deceased sandwich with a cup of lukewarm, indeterminable liquid from a café in Asda.  Probably costs about the same as well!

Bon Appétit!          To see all our Restuarant Reviews click here 

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ALAIN AND THE HARE-part 2-20/06/2006

…….So, there I was, in the courtyard holding a frozen hare by its hind legs so that it was almost vertical.  Looking like some kind of deformed divining rod.

Now, all of those who know me will agree that I am a caring sort of guy,(sic or should it be sick!),who justifiably prides myself on my sensitivity!

And I could therefore sense that Sheila would not like me to prepare the hare in the house. This conclusion was also helped by the fact that her head was sticking around the door screaming, “TAKE IT AWAY, GET RID OF IT, IT’S NOT COMING IN HERE!!.”, and other phrases of a similar but less polite nature.

As I was standing there, pondering what to do, the two vegetarians who had rented the “Le Sauvignon” apartment scurried past, looks of horror and distaste on their faces.  Which just proves that some good can come out of anything, no matter how bad it seems at the time!!

Friends, who were also there at the time, then suggested that they take it with them and dump in it a hedge thereby ensuring that at least the buzzards and any passing foxes would be happy at this unforeseen cornucopia.  

But no, I had decided that the hare is a noble animal and he should at least provide a repast worthy of him. (or her, come to that.) 

The old cannibals used to believe that, by eating their enemies, some of their strength, speed and cunning passed into their bodies. Perhaps this would be true of the hare, mind you I would have to meet it half way by losing about three stone and it is  cerainly true that eating duck, grouse and pheasant  didn’t mean I could fly when I fell off a 10 metre ladder.  Still, we can dream.

Then, my eye fell across the road to the house of Robert and Jeanette, true country people and Robert was a dedicated chasseur.  I would present the hare to them with a great fanfare, they would accept it ecstatically, probably with copias amounts of Pastis to show their eternal gratitude and I could finally stagger away without having to do the gory skinning and disembowelling myself.

There was, however, just one slight hitch in my plan.

I marched over the road, the hare preceding me like the insignia of some barbaric tribe about to do battle with the Roman Legions. I knocked on the door, Jeanette opened it, to be met by me proudly proffering the cadeau, and then, before I had a chance to speak, she said the French equivalent of; “You much be joking, I‘ve got a frigging freezer full”!

“Oh, right”, I said, just a little disappointed.

“Why don’t you do it yourself”?  she asked

I explained that Sheila had an severe optical problem and thought the hare was a black and white cat and that ,failing  major surgery, nothing could be done to make her change her mind.

“I’ll do it for you in that case”, she volunteered, “and bring it over to you tonight.”

After copious thanks I took my leave and then, as I was walking past Robert’s workshop, I was startled by the roar of a diesel engine starting up. I popped my head into the shed and saw Robert fiddling with an old compressor, as his is want.  As I was talking or rather shouting at him, above the racket of the engine, Jeanette shouted something up the garden; the only word of which I could catch was ‘charcuterie’. Oh good, I thought, she’s going to turn it into sausage or pâté or something like that. 

So that evening she marched into the courtyard where she presented me with this gory red thing which looked as if had had a particularly detailed and clumsy autopsy. It would have cost a fortune at the Tate.  Just to complete the picture, it was covered with a blood stained muslin cloth which looked uncannily like a shroud.  Oh, and it was on a charcuterie plate, I’d obviously missed the latter word!  

As I walked into the house with it Sheila took one look and said stonily,

“I’m going to the Post Office,”

Thus, I reckoned I had about 15 minutes to do something with it before she returned.

How do you cook a hare? No idea, ……internet …., enter hare recipes, find 1,030,000 links. GREAT. I want to cook one hare not the whole frigging species.

Then I saw www.cookitsimply.com. That sounds like me.

Step one: Cut all the meat off the bone.

Step two:  Chop it into bite sized bits.

Step three: Make marinade and leave for few hours.

Step four: Cook slowly in casserole for two hours, adding other ingredients like mushrooms and onions.

Sounds simple enough.  And, amazingly it was. True there were unforeseen complications.  But again searching the internet for cooking terms solved much of the problems caused by cook-speak words like sauté, which apparently means to cook food quickly in a small amount of oil or fat in a skillet or sauté pan over direct heat.  Or, as the rest of us, outside the cooking profession would have it, fry it in a frying pan on a cooker. I mean, what else are you going to use? A candle!!  Beurre Manie was another classic, what the hell’s that I thought, it does not even make a lot of sense in French, translating as butter with an odd habit, so thats clear then! turns out to be nothing more exotic than a butter and flour paste used for thickening!!!  

I was a little worried when I realised that the meat sat in the fridge, luxuriating in its marinade, for a day and a half as opposed to the few hours the recipe specified.  This was due to the fact that I forgot about it.  But it did not seem to come to any harm and the meat actually took on the colour of the Saumur Rouge which was a major part of the marinade. I then thought it was a bit bland so lobbed in loads of different herbs and spices, basing it, highly scientifically, on different coloured lids, a bit of yellow, a bit of green etc. etc. Seemed to work OK., its a doddle this cooking lark and I’m sure that’s how Jamie Oliver does it.   

So, two hours later, it was ready.

It is true that Sheila and our friends Margaret and Allan could not get over their strange aversion to eating cuddly bunnykins. (All the fault of Walt Disney and Beatrice Potter in my humble opinion), but, all the normal people, including French friends, adored it and were lining up like Oliver Twist asking for more. In short a veritable culinary triumph, if I say so myself. 

I am now an avid viewer of cooking programmes and actually watched a late night French one on cooking wild boar.  I wonder if Alain ever gets any of those during the hunting season?  I’d have to get a bigger pan though and I’d need to make about two gallon of marinade, on the other hand at least Sheila couldn’t say it looked like a cat!   

And the morale of this tale is never look a gift hare in the mouth, or chuck it behind a hedge for that matter!!!

Alain and the Hare -8/6/2006

I was in the bar the other night when Alain, a great big, bearded bear of a man and an ex Foreign Legionnaire, with the injuries to prove it, offered me a hare.
Being engrossed in a conversation about whether Zidane was past it and whether the French football team could exist without him I just said, over my shoulder,  “Oui, merci bien, j’aime beaucoup.”
“I’ll drop it off tomorrow”. he shouted, he only has one speaking style; loud!

Now being as he was, shall we say, tired and emotional! I would have had no qualms agreeing to receive an Iranian nuclear bomb from him, being totally and absolutely certain that, when he woke the following morning, he would have a bigger chance of catching leprosy than remembering what he had said the previous night.

So, the next day, he swept into the courtyard,( he drives his car like a Centurian Tank), where he, (almost literally), bumped into Sheila and asked her to take the hare from the boot.
“A what?” she asked
“A hare”, said Alaine 
“Cooked?” she resonded, mystified
‘No, whole and intact,” he replied equally mystified
“I can’t touch a dead hare”, said Sheila horrified.
“Why ever not,” said Alain, equally horrified.
“I’ll get Brian!”
So, she came charging into the garden where I was cleaning the pool.
“Brian, there’s a friend of yours, with a dead animal, in the courtyard”!
“Oh yeah, that will be Alain with his hare, it’s OK, just take it off him”, I replied.
“No chance”, she said, disappearing into the distance and, at the same time, mumbling something about it looking like Mr. Jospin, our cat, who, sadly, had met his end, on the road, a few weeks earlier.
It looked nothing like Jospin, he was black and white.
Anyway, I walked into the courtyard where I shook Alains’ hand and thanked him for bringing the hare.
“Is there a problem?” he boomed, watching Sheila disappear around the corner at a rate of knots.
“No, no problem, I’ll get the hare,” I quickly replied.
“It’s in the boot, nice hare, shot it myself six weeks ago.”
My hand paused on the boot. “SIX weeks, won’t it be a bit, you know, smelly?”
“No, why?”
At this point I was wondering why I always seem to have strange conversations with the big man.
“Because six weeks is a long time”, I suggested
“A long time for what?”   
“To go rotten’.
“Why should it go rotten?” 
“BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN DEAD FOR SIX WEEKS!” I almost shouted.     Was it the Turtles that sang that old pop song, “Going around in
Circles”?
“I saw a small smile fight through his luxuriant growth as realisation slowly dawned. He beckoned me closer and, for the first time ever, I heard him whisper:-
“It’s frozen!”
“Ah bon” I replied, perhaps just a little embarrased.
“It’s got its bracelet so you can show it to the police” roared Alain, back to full volume
Bracelet, I thought. Why would it have a bracelet and why on earth would I want to show it to the police?  Life would be a lot simpler if, just occasionally, I had the faintest idea what Alain was going on about!
I opened the boot and lifted the hare out by its rear legs. It was solid, rigid and I could not help but think of the dead parrot sketch from Monty Python. I almost asked Alain if he was the “owner of this boutique”, but ultimately I  decided that conversation with him was complicated enough to start with without bringing a 30 year old cult English comedy sketch into the equation.
And then I saw, to my great surprise, that attached to its leg, was a green plastic bracelet with a six digit number.
Was this the latest thing in hare fashion, had it been a member of an exclusive club for hares about town or had it been hiding from the police, having been tagged?
In fact, as Alain, explained, it was none of these things. It was an official hunt bracelet, affixed to every animal shot in the course of the days activity, each tag represented one part of the hunts allocated quota, and, once they were all allocated, then the hunt could no longer shoot anymore of that particular species.  If a hunter happened to be walking along with a shot animal in hand, the police, or Gendamerie, are quite at liberty to stop him and ask to see the bracelet attached to the animal.  If it is not attached then the hunter is committing a criminal offence. Typically Gallic.
I shut the boot lid and Alain roared off in his tank, scattering the gravel, waving his arm out of the window and bellowing a mighty, “à plus!” , as he disappeared through the gateway, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there might be another motorist wishing to share the same bit of narrow road.  Still he was driving a tank! 

What happened then, how,against all the odds, I completed a famous culinery triumph, I will reveal next time.

Wines of the Loire (2) – Saumur

This is the second of my posts on the wines of the Loire Valley and covers the appellation of Saumur.

Saumur is part of the larger Anjou appellation and growers can decide whether to name their wines Anjou or Saumur, although in practice Saumur is the name of choice. village vineyard view in le puy notre dame

There are appellations for red, white, rosé, sweet and sparkling. These are respectively Saumur Rouge, Saumur Blanc, Cabinet de Saumur, Coteaux de Saumur and Saumur Brut. Although all these appellations, “mirror”, the appellations of Anjou, nevertheless, the wines are distinctly different, this is primarily because of the different soils, almost purely limestone in Saumur and a much more varied, “terroir”, in Anjou. The result being that Saumur wines are, like limestone wines everywhere, more elegant when compared to the chunkier, more forsquare wines of Anjou. In addition to these appellations there is also the lieu-dit of Saumur-Champigny and our  village has just been awarded its own appellation of Saumur-Puy Notre Dame. Both of these appellations are for red wine only.   

Almost all wine is made from Chenin for the whites, Cabinet Franc for the reds plus a little Chardonnay for the sparkling.

So what are the wines like? Like all Anjou, Saumur has often suffered a bad press, surprisingly often from well known winewriters who really should know better. The impression is often given that the reds are very light, almost like super rosés.  This is simply not true. It may have been, about twenty years ago when, shall we say, there was a lot of unfufilled potential, but not now.  The normal colour of a good Saumur is a rich, deep ruby red with a typically Cabernet nose of  crushed red fruits becoming more complex over about three years, like most French red wine a good Saumur should have noticeable tannin in the mouth and a good vibrant length. Many winemakers make two or three different “cépage”, for example, one of my favourite domains in Le Puy, Le Domaine de la Paliene, will make three in a normal year.  The first has a maceration period of about ten days, is from youngish vines and produces a light, simple wine ideal for barbeques etc., like Beaujolais even being capable of taking a little chilling. The second cuvée is maceratied for fifteen days and therefore has an increasing depths of intensity and complexity.  The top level of wine has a maceration period of four weeks and is produced from aged vines from a separate parcel of vineyard. This is serious wine; elegant, complex and of superb length which will continue to mature for a least the next five years. 

Oak is usually used very sparingly for the red wines and surprisingly less and less winemakers are using it, believing that the quality of Saumur Red is quite good enough to stand alone and that oak fundamentally changes the nature of the wine. One vigneron put it to me in this way:-

“Why should we use oak in our wines, what faults do we want to hide?”

Therebye, perhaps revealing the reason for much, (but of course not all), of heavy oak usage. It should also be noted that, with the perhaps less elegant reds of Anjou, a judicious use of oak is often used in the better cuveés to the obvious enhancement of the wines.

Saumur-Champigny has long been the “cru” of Saumur.  The appellation is young only being granted in 1957. In the 1970’s light almost Beaujolais type Champigny swept the wine bars of Paris and the appellation took off.  As with all famous appellations over production is an ever present danger and the appellation should, in my opinion, be producing a much greater level of quality than it does.  But, as elsewhere, more and more wines of distinction are being produced and often producers will make their Champigny in the old light style and also a much better, more serious bottling. However, it has to be said that, even with a lot still to do, the wines are still very tasty and can only become even better. Several vignerons in the area are leading the way especially Filliatreau. 

Saumur-Puy Notre Dame has never had the problem of over-production and its newly awarded appellation is a reward for over 30 years production of good, stylish red wine.    

Whilst red wine is perhaps the better known of Saumurs’ still wine with currently about 60% of the production being red. I think that the appellation is capable of producing some of the best whites to be produced anywhere. More and more winemakers are starting to concentrate on the white variety and certainly almost all those I know well are starting to produce more whites at the expense of the reds. Perhaps this is a case of a region returning to its roots, as, for centuries, Saumur was reknown for its classic Chenin whites, particularly its Coteaux.

As with all wine there are both good and bad producers and different levels of quality. The trick is to know the former and to avoid the latter.  Chenin is a notably capricious grape both to cultivate and to use as a base material for making excellent wine. It tends to do both mediocre and superb very well indeed but it is not quite so easy to persuade it to do average. In addition, some years can go, “dumb”, after two or three years in bottle and then, suddenly, does a Lazarus and returns from the dead with additional layers of depth and complexity.  In the hands of a sympathetic winemaker, who understands its capricious nature, it can make truly great wine.  It can combine aromas of pineapple, apricot and grapefruit packaged in waxy honey together with a golden hue and zingy acidity.  Mouth filling wine that deceives with its silkiness and then leaves your tastebuds in a state of shock and which lingers in the mouth like a latter day Frank Sinatra, refusing to go away.  

This is what Decanter Magazine said about the Domaine de la Paliene 2003, which it chose as ,”Wine of the Month”, in December 2005:-

“Very stylish wine. Fine Chenin Blanc typicity with aromas of dried apricot and a hint of honey. Zesty acidity, fine balance and length”.

But, personally I think that the 2004 is much more elegant and a better indication of typicity than the 2003 which, because of the incredible summer temperatures in that year, was decidedly NOT typical.

Although Saumur produces the full array of both Loire and Anjou Rosés, the only one I am going to talk about is Cabernet de Saumur.  We will discuss the others when we come onto Anjou.

Cabernet, as its name suggests, is 100% Cabernet Franc, macerated overnight or sometimes just for a few hours just to leach some colour from the black skins. I must confess that I never tried it until fairly recently because I always thought that it was the Saumur version of Cabernet d’Anjou. This latter wine, to me, has always been an oddball and even though many people love it, the strange combination of sugary sweetness and green peppers has always defeated my understanding. You can therefore imagine my delight when I politely accepted a glass from the retired father of Christian the existing winemaker at the Domaine du Vieux Tuffeaux and found it delicious, dry, fresh, well balanced and a delight to drink, highly chilled, (8C) on a hot sticky day rarely, and somewhat surprisingly, for a rosé it also had a hint of rose on the nose and a distinct touch of mint on the finish.  The only problem, of which you should be aware is that, because of the continual series of good warm years, the winemakers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep down the alcohol levels, the 2005 coming in at a staggering 14%.  A real trap for those who think that drinking, what appears to be a very light wine, will relieve them of a possible hangover!!!!  Cabernet de Saumur is also one of the rarest of Rosés, the appelation only allowing about 50 hectares to be cultivated within the Saumurois producing a maximum of 400 hltrs.  Minute in commercial terms. 

In most of the Loire, sparkling wine is almost an afterthought, (which is not to say that there is not many, many excellent Cremant de Loire around).  But, in Saumur it is a major part of wine production. Saumur is Frances’ second largest sparkling wine producer after Champagne, albeit a distance second in terms of quantity.  The same geographical conditions which lead to the sparkling wine industry in Champagne also apply in the Saumurois. ie., limestone soils and masses of underground galleries which made storing and elevating the wine easy. Both regions share a fairly northerly position which lent itself to a secondary fermentation restarting in bottles of still wine after the cold winters were over. It should, however, be noted that in Saumur the grapes are always ripe whilst in Champagne it is almost always necessary to add sugar before the first fermentation, which is why young Champagne, released too early often has a green, unripe feel to it.  

Winemakers in the region will argue that sparkling wine was made in the region before the industry started in the Champagnois. It is certainly true that the girropallete, the machine that can turn hundreds of bottles at the same time and now universally used throught the world, was invented here.  It is also undeniably true that, until the appellation laws were tightened up, tanker loads of Saumur Brut, used to leave the region en route for Champagne. Even now disgruntled winemakers will occasionally mumble about certain unscrupulous individuals putting Champagne labels on Saumur bottles!

On the outskirts of Saumur, particularly at St. Hilaire, one will find the big sparkling houses, Bouvet-Laduby, Ackerman, Veuve Amiot and Gratien-Meyer.  Most of these are owned by Champagne houses, the  first three above, being owned by:- Taittinger, Rémy-Pannier and Martini-Rossi respectively. All provide both excellent wine and and excellent tours for the visitor. Bouvet-Ladurby is normally regarded as the foremost producer and its Cuvée Trésor is a very serious wine indeed – with a price to match.

The appellation allows up to eight grape varieties into the cépage but a typical mix would be 60% Chenin, 20% Chardonnay and the rest small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Grolleau Gris. There is also a Rosé and even a red both based on Cabernet Franc.  The red sparkling was originally introduced by Bouvet-Ladurby and is said to go particularly well with chocolate.  

Many smaller producers do not have the capital to supply all the equipment needed to make sparkling wine and, hence, tend to send their wine off to the Cooperative, the big houses or Langlois-Chateau for finishing. They will then send back three or four samples of the finished wine each topped up with a dosage of varying  sweetness after disgorgement. The winemaker will then choose his preference and the sparkling specialist will then convert the rest of the wine into that choice. I have been fortunate to be asked to sit on several “tasting panels’ to help decide this choice and it is really amazing the difference that 0.05% of sugar will make to a wine.

Locally both the Domaine de la Paliene and the Domaine du Vieux Tuffeau make excellent sparkling wine. The former on the premises, whilst the latter makes my favourite Rosé sparkler. Le Domaine de Gloriette is very highly regarded concentrating almost exclusively on sparkling wine, which is not surprising as its owner, Sébastien Crépaux is from the Champagne Region and still has the family vineyard in that region.

Finally we come to Saumur’s rarest wine, Le Coteaux de Saumur. This is a sweet wine made from 100% Chenin, it tends to be less sweet and less alcoholic than its Anjou brother, Le Coteaux du Layon, but is very refined and elegant, a little leaner and racier.  It has the reputation of being rare  because very little is made in bad years, (In 1983 only 23 hectolitres were made and I suspect that 2006 will be much the same).  Having said that, up to the unseasonal rain in 2006 we have not had a bad year for a long, long time and certainly since 2000, every vintage has been praiseworthy. Because of this the wine is probably more common now than it has ever been. It is priced on the expensive side, (for here!), which reflects the work that goes into it. We use a system of “tris” which can mean anything between three and five passes through the vineyard collecting only over-ripe grapes or those affected by noble rot. It is still a lot cheaper than wine of the equivalent quality from, for example Sauterne and, for me, the price does not reflect the huge amount of work that goes into it.  In fact I would stick my head out and say that, whist not denying the fact that both Champagne and Sauterne undoubtedly make the best wine in their catorgeries, (that is if you can afford to buy Chateau d’Yquem and the handful of top vintage champagnes!), the overall standard of both Saumur Brut and Coteaux de Saumur is higher than that of Champagne or Sauterne.  Although, of course, I am totally and unashamedly biased!   

Many people refer to Coteaux as, “Pudding Wine”, personally, I would never eat anything other than the lightest fruit based desserts with this wine.  It makes a superb pairing with fois gras, makes  an excellent aperitif and best of all, in my opinion, it is a culinery experience when taken with such French blue cheeses as Roquefort, St. Agur and Bleu d’Auvergne with the salt of the cheese and the sweetness of the wine making a superb combination. Locally, a very good Coteaux is also often taken as a “pause” between cheese and dessert at a formal dinner.